During the last few years, several friends and acquaintances have asked for my advice on writing and publishing a book. My literary agency curates a blog which is chock-full of great publishing info; below are my insights on the experience.
My favorite writing manuals are Stephen King’s On Writing; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird (both of those contain bad language); William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. I studied these invaluable books, and others, before I started writing publicly. As Stephen King says: If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Read all the great writing you can get your hands on, especially in the genre in which you’re planning to write. I’m always happy to give book recommendations!
Most of the people who have contacted me want to write nonfiction, like I did. I faced two big challenges while working on Grandma’s book. First, because I was writing someone else’s story, I had to please her. Grandma was driving the bus. She had veto power on what I included, what I left out, how I described events, how I portrayed characters. It was a delicate balancing act, particularly with sensitive parts of the story, and I didn’t have much “artistic license.” My artistry had to conform to her exact preferences, and I often didn’t know what her preferences were until I’d labored over a passage, only to have her completely dismantle it. Most people – including me, and probably you – are very protective about their own story.
(There are certain legal restrictions when you’re writing about real people – this includes all secondary characters – and there are ownership issues with letters and diaries. My publisher guided me through the legal factors.)
The other big challenge I faced, particularly since mine was a historical project, was the research required: I had to get all the details right. Not just the facts of dates, people, and events, but also the colorful details that make a scene come alive. The weather, the plants, the clothing, the vehicles, the birds in that area of the country…everything. This meant combing through books and websites ranging from Ellis Island records to the South Dakota University extension (horticultural) service. Since I am very curious, and love doing research, I’d often fall down a rabbit hole and have to reel myself back up – no, Cathy, you really don’t need to know every detail about every hurricane that made landfall in the 1920’s…especially since your story doesn’t take place anywhere near the ocean.
Once I had a passage or chapter written, I’d edit and edit and edit some more. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” As with any craft, it takes lots of practice to improve.
Because I wanted to be traditionally published, I needed to have an agent – publishers won’t accept manuscripts directly from writers. Literary agents require no money up-front, but they get 15% of any book money you earn. They’re worth every penny.
Once I had several chapters completed (and while I was still writing and researching), I went to the library and checked out the “Publisher’s Marketplace,” a thick book that contains contact info for publishers and agents. After making a list of prospective agencies, I looked at each of their websites to see if any of their agents represented books like mine. For any I thought was a good fit, I followed their submission requirements.
These days, most agents accept electronic submissions, although a few want faxes – I even found one who still required “snail mail.” Most of them want a synopsis of the book, a list of previous writing projects, and social media audience numbers; some also want part of the manuscript attached to the query. For a nonfiction story, interested agents want to see the first three chapters, written and polished. For fiction, they require the entire manuscript up front.
It took me more than a year to find an agent who loved my story, but once I did, things moved very quickly – I had a signed book contract within about four months. (Self-publishing is another option. I don’t know anything about that process, but I believe there are many useful guides to that online.)
The odds are very much against any writer being traditionally published. Many famous, talented authors started out their careers by getting dozens and dozens of rejections – sometimes spanning years. I just now revisited the list of agents I queried, and I winced while scrolling through it…it was a very long list. I contacted 73 agents. More than half of them never even replied to me. I got lots of “No, thanks.” Only a handful were even mildly interested in my story – and I was offering a compelling true story that had already gone viral, and had drawn the attention of national morning television shows (which was a nice marketing bonus, the kind of thing that publishers appreciate).
And after all that, even though my writing was solid, I still had to hire an experienced collaborator to write my proposal and help me put the book together on a tight schedule (because of my grandma’s age.)
Even if you are published, it’s nearly impossible to make any significant money through writing. I have now been compensated for the years I spent working on my book, but that’s only after receiving the book advance, four years of book sales, international rights, AND a movie option.
The old chestnut is true: don’t write to fulfill lofty dreams of fame and fortune. Write because you have to express yourself that way, and you have a story that’s begging to be told. Anything else that happens is just gravy.